It doesn't get much better than this.
When Atletico Madrid hosts Real Madrid on Sunday, far more than pride between two rivals will be at stake. Real Madrid come into the game in first place at 63 points, while Atletico Madrid are in third with 60 points (Barcelona are in second place at 60 points as well but hold the advantage in goal differential over Atletico).
Atletico won the first league contest between these clubs, 1-0, but Real Madrid had their revenge by winning both legs of their Cop del Rey semifinal showdown by a total of 5-0 on aggregate. Now, they face one another with La Liga positioning atop the table on the line.
Let's break down this key matchup.
When: Sunday at 11 a.m. ET
Sunday at 4 p.m. GMT
Where: Estadio Vicente Calderon, Madrid, Spain
Watch: beIN Sports; beIN Sports Play; Sky Sports 4 (U.K.)
Chances: Atletico Madrid (42.6 percent), Real Madrid (35.2 percent) and draw (22.2 percent), according to Bloomberg Sports
The implications for the league title are obvious, but it's still important to recognize the magnitude of this rivalry. Adam Shergold of the Daily Mail provides more context:
Every installment of El Derbi madrileno carries enormous significance and it has been thus since Atletico and Real first contested for league points in the late 1920s.
The two clubs have contrasting identities but these have shifted over the years. Real was always the club of the Establishment, Atletico the choice of the workers. Real had Conservative politics, Atletico were more left-wing and rebellious. Real were generally the favoured club of General Franco, but he preferred Atletico first.
That regime may be long gone and such ideologies less noticeable, but the Spanish capital will be divided into two tribes as ever on Sunday for the most important derby in years.
But that's the past. In the present, no team outside of Bayern Munich is hotter than Real Madrid. Los Blancos haven't lost a match in their last 27 contest across all competitions, dating all the way back to a 2-1 loss against Barcelona on October 26.
Of course, Atletico Madrid haven't lost at home this season in La Liga play, with 11 wins and two draws. They are the only team in the league to be unbeaten at home.
But manager Carlo Ancelotti said his Real Madrid side are ready for this contest, noting via ESPN, "The last games have given us a lot more confidence. In the Liga game they caused us many, many problems, losing the derbi at home. These games we played in the Copa have given us more confidence.”
He added of Atletico:
It is not a surprise that Atletico are at this level. They are perfect to play in any competition, any league. They are very well balanced. They know their limits very well.
They are fantastically solid. They use their strengths: the counter-attack, set-plays… they are efficient. Atletico is like [their manager, Diego] Simeone was as a player. They play to the maximum, play together, give their all.
Atletico will have their hands full with Cristiano Ronald and Gareth Bale, each fresh off a brace in last week's 6-1 thrashing of Schalke in the Champions League. According to WhoScored.com, Ronaldo (8.14 average match rating) and Bale (7.71) have been the second- and fourth-best players in La Liga this season.
Of course, Gabi (7.62), Diego Costa (7.57) and Tiago (7.57) all make WhoScored's top 10 (though Tiago won't play due to injury).
Costa will be the man to watch for the home side. His 21 league goals trail only Ronaldo (22), and his proficiency inside of the box this season could give Real's defenders fits. From WhoScored:
Diego Costa: Has scored more goals from inside the box (20) than any other player in Europe's top 5 leagues this season #Atleti— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 28, 2014
Still, Costa won't be able to beat Real Madrid alone, not with the collection of talent Los Blancos possess. Atletico will need to be defensively sound as they were in the early-season league match between these teams, a tall task given how well Real Madrid have played of late.
It's hard to see either of these teams losing. Real Madrid are red hot, and the pair of Ronaldo and Bale are really starting to click. On the other hand, Atletico are really tough at home and surely have revenge on the mind after the Copa del Rey semifinals.
Which team wins?
If Atletico can slow the game down and frustrate Real Madrid in the midfield, they'll win. If they allow Real's playmakers too much space, they'll lose. And if they do a bit of both, well, you'll probably get a very excited draw out of this game.
Expect the latter. This game ends up even, 2-2.